"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Epiphany: light amid the darkness

It is one of the perversities of contemporary Catholicism that far more American Catholics are celebrating the Baptism of the Lord today than Epiphany. January 6 is the latter's ancient and traditional date, and the feast has long been a bigger deal in Orthodoxy than Catholicism. Of late it's gotten to be an even smaller deal for Catholics. Most of those attending Mass today will have availed themselves of the Saturday evening "vigil Mass" for the Baptism of the Lord tomorrow—not the Mass for Epiphany, which today comes only in the morning when Mass attendance is the sparsest of all the days of the week. At least I managed to bestir myself to attend the Vespers for Epiphany at Belmont Abbey. I was even alert enough to get most of the chant notes right. But I'm not proud that I forgot all about Mass in the morning, when I slept in to get over the remnants of my cold.

A few years ago, the U.S. bishops moved Epiphany to the nearest Sunday to January 6, so that Catholics in our highly mobile society would not be burdened by betaking themselves to Mass during the Christmas season any more than absolutely, positively necessary. Most Catholics, after all, seem to agree with the merchants that Christmas ends on December 25; I suppose the bishops' thinking was that, if you can neither beat 'em nor join 'em, you can at least make a concession to those sedentary folk who are still recovering from "the holiday season." So now the Sunday for Epiphany gives way to the Baptism of the Lord when the celebration of the former on a Sunday would push the latter Sunday past January 10 or so. O tempora, O mores.

What I see in this trend is the dimming of the light. According to Scripture and Tradition, three "wise men" from the East—quite possibly Chaldea (Iraq) or Persia (Iran)—were the first Gentiles to lay eyes on the Messiah, God-become-man. They were not deterred from doing him homage, and offering him expensive if symbolic gifts, by the lowly circumstances of his birth and by King Herod's grisly reputation for protecting his power at all costs. They had, and acted on, more faith than most Jews had. Of course that was taken by the early Church not only as the occasion of Christ's first "manifestation" or "epiphany" to the world, but as a sign of what was to come several generations after Jesus' birth: the "Gentilization" of the Church. "His own received him not," and so God's promise to Abraham of countless descendants was fulfilled in the churches of the Gentiles. That is more relevant today than in many centuries past because today, people of faith are a smaller minority in the West than they've been since the fall of the Roman Empire. The true disciples of Christ are like the three wise men, drawn by the light to what seems unimpressive, even superstitious, to the majority. But instead of using Epiphany to emphasize the themes of light in darkness and majesty in humility, we are steadily sandwiching it into oblivion.

Kyrie, eleison.
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